China Mountain Zhang

by Maureen F. McHugh

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: March 1992
Printing: January 1993
ISBN: 0-8125-0892-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 312

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Zhang Zhong Shan (China or Fragrant Mountain Zhang) is an ABC, American Born Chinese, in a 22nd century world in which China is the dominant country of the world and the United States has undergone a communist revolution. He works as a construction tech, someone trained to operate heavy equipment at job sites. Heritage is huge in his world; Chinese born in China have the highest status, and Zhang, secretly, is not even full-blooded Chinese. His father is Chinese but his mother was Puerto Rican, and his ancestry was hidden to try to help him get better work. The opening problem of the book is that his foreman at work wants him to date his daughter, believing him to be a good match. The background check would expose his secret.

But Zhang also has a deeper secret. He has no interest in the foreman's daughter for another reason: he's gay, in a society that does not tolerate homosexuality at all and where it therefore exists only as an underground culture. Throughout the book, he balances that culture, and his need for romance and love, with the need to stay hidden, the need to find a way to survive in the world, and eventually even to work on something he enjoys.

This is a highly unusual book for science fiction. It has a fully fleshed-out future world, with a clear problem (a racist caste system, a dysfunctional economy, and a protagonist who's discriminated against), but it's not a book about changing that world. Nor is it one where the change happens on a smaller scale, with the protagonist radically changing the lives of the people around him. In this book, culture and government have realistically overwhelming weight and momentum. As Zhang says:

I don't believe in socialism but I don't believe in capitalism either. We are small, governments are large, we survive in the cracks. Cold comfort.

This is, in other words, a closely observed character story that verges on pure slice-of-life. We watch Zhang move through his life, like most people, without a clear idea of exactly what he wants or where he's going. There are dangers from his secrets, but those dangers often come in banal ways, and underground cultures are normally fairly safe. There are just sudden moments of panic, in which everything could be lost. This book is primarily about daily life, relationships, and the ways in which people interact and change each other in subtle ways.

Most of the book is told from Zhang's perspective, starting as a construction worker in New York City and then taking a job in a desolate Arctic scientific outpost so that he can earn a place in a school in China. But intermixed with his stories are other ones: a kite racer without enough money to afford the best equipment, a homesteader in a hard-scrabble Mars colony who finds herself offering a place to a man and his daughter who are scared of being separated, even the daughter of Zhang's original foreman. The characters interact at times, their lives touching on each other fleetingly, but they don't come together. They each have their own paths and diverge again. China Mountain Zhang steadfastly avoids large, sweeping themes to tell small stories. But despite a crushing world and some moments of stark tragedy, it's also a hopeful book.

Insofar as this book has a message, I think it's tied in with why it's set in a science fiction future instead of the present day. To me, China Mountain Zhang is about the universal emotions of everyday life, not for the powerful or authorially chosen, but for the individual people who are no more going to change the entire world than they will fly to the sun. It's about the universality of doubt, difficulty in finding direction, setbacks, banal dangers, and the frustration of having to work within an impersonal system. It's also about the small connections of life, the feeling of finding work that one truly wants to do, and the common decency of individual people. I've rarely read a book that so well encapsulates the fact that, regardless of the surrounding social system or technology level, people help each other and wish the best for each other. Inconsistently, selfishly, stutteringly, and sometimes ineffectively, but there's a layer of almost unconscious empathy and good will that runs through human interactions, and China Mountain Zhang captures it beautifully.

The science fiction setting gives us some distance so that we can see that better, and to see what doesn't change despite a changed future and different technology. People remain people even inside a drastic change in economic systems, in a world that most US authors would portray as an unending nightmare.

One might not expect it halfway through the book, where it still feels like Zhang is drifting aimlessly, but McHugh brings the story to a wonderful and optimistic conclusion. The story becomes a coming of age of a sort, but not that of a chosen person. It's the process of someone choosing a life without knowing that he's doing so, and then settling into that life with more conscious intent, with lingering dangers and drawbacks, but also with a better understanding of what they live for and what they enjoy.

I've always heard great things about this book, but had been holding off reading it because it's described as quiet and very different than typical SF, and I feared I'd be bored. It is quiet, very closely focused on individual characters, and not about typical SF themes, but I was certainly not bored. Recommended; China Mountain Zhang fully deserves the awards it's won.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-12-24

Last modified and spun 2017-05-08